The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to continue to monitor daily the three beluga whales exploring Narragansett Bay. Biologists want to make sure they return safely back to their Arctic habitat.
NOAA Fisheries biologist Jamison Smith said given the inquisitive nature of beluga whales, it’s safe to guess these young whales “went off on a wanderlust, so to speak.” Smith said beluga whales are slow swimmers. It could take them two months to swim back home. He said the longer they’re away from their Arctic home, the more curious they’ll become and may even seek out to play with humans.
“If that were to happen to someone, exit the water and [do] not encourage that type of behavior, which reinforces them to stay in the area, which makes it that much more difficult for them to survive and head back to where they should be."
Smith, along with biologists from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, recently took a skin sample from one of the whales to assess its health and confirm whether they indeed belong to the declining stock in the St. Lawrence estuary in Canada.
All three groups are working with their Canadian counterparts at the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals and the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network. Canadian biologists already confirmed by photo identification that one of the whales belongs to the St. Lawrence estuary stock.
Smith said the belugas look healthy, but they want to make sure they don’t return home with a measles-like virus that’s hitting porpoises, dolphins, and whales in a recent outbreak.
"Our concern is that if these animals were exposed to that morbillivirus and they return to their endangered stock in St. Lawrence, they could spread the virus and so that would be pretty catastrophic or has the potential to be catastrophic for a small endangered population," said Smith.
Smith said the federal agency will decide later this week whether to take biopsies from the other two whales depending on results from the first biopsy.
People can report sightings to NOAA Fisheries' Marine Mammal Stranding and Entanglement Hotline at 866-755-NOAA (6622) or to Mystic Aquarium's Animal Rescue Hotline at 860-572-5955 ext. 107.
Beluga whales and all marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. NOAA also asks that people report any harassment to the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement Hotline at 800-853-1964.
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